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Pleasure principles: Witherspoon and Everett in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Wilde at Heart
By Shawn Stone

The Importance of Being Earnest
Directed by Oliver Parker

Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy of manners presents us with a pair of elegant bachelors. Algy (Rupert Everett) is from London, while Jack (Colin Firth) is from the country. Both are libertines who construct elaborate lies to further their pursuit of pleasure. Algy has a fictitious friend whose constant ailments allow him an escape from both relatives and creditors. Jack has invented a debauched brother named Ernest whose imagined bad behavior permits Jack to go to London and raise Cain. In fact, Algy thinks (at first) that Jack’s name really is Ernest.

Rupert Everett and Colin Firth make an amusing pair. Algy gets the best lines, and Jack the most interesting action. Everett delivers the sparkling dialogue with the right note of cynicism. Firth cleverly makes the Ernest persona the character’s “real” self, while at home in the country as Jack, he behaves like a self-righteous prig. It’s a situation perfectly designed for comedic disaster.

The situation becomes complicated when Jack falls in love with Algy’s cousin Gwendolyn (Frances O’Connor). She loves him too, but particularly because his name is Ernest (it sounds, well, earnest). Things become more complicated when Algy ventures down to Jack’s estate in the country, presenting himself as the notorious brother Ernest. Jack’s young ward, Cecily (Reese Witherspoon), who also has “a girlish fancy” to love a man named Ernest, is delighted and aroused by the renamed Algy. Soon thereafter, Jack and Gwendolyn also arrive, and the complications multiply with dizzying efficiency. Oh, there’s also the icy Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench), Algy’s aunt and Gwendolyn’s mother, who arrives with all the pomp and malice of an imperious, unyielding monarch.

Wilde’s dialogue and carefully crafted play don’t need embellishment, but director Oliver Parker insists on gilding the lily. To be fair, most of his ideas work. He opens the play up imaginatively, moving the action from the drawing room to the bawdy houses of London and the rolling lawns of a country estate. If his taste for fantasy ocassionally spills over into excess, there’s no great harm done. (The musical score is unnecessarily emphatic, though.)

Coproducer Miramax Films casts Dame Judi in their films more often and with less shame than a fat-cat Hollywood slimeball would cast a beautiful but talentless lover. Sometimes Dench is appropriate (Shakespeare in Love), but often as not she’s just listless Oscar bait (Chocolat). This time, she’s brilliant. Her Lady Bracknell is earnest—deadly earnest—to see her nephew marry wealth and her daughter marry into an equivalent or greater position in society than her own. She is the steel in Wilde’s light and airy comic construction.

As with any endeavor involving an all-English cast, the supporting parts are played by overqualified actors. Anna Massey (as Cecily’s pious tutor, Miss Prism) and recent Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson (as the vicar) are very good as an elderly pair trying desperately to be amorous. Edward Fox has less than a dozen lines as Lane, Algy’s butler, but he makes an indelible impression.

As in a Shakespearian comedy, all’s well that ends well. Wilde, possibly amused by the necessity of engineering a happy ending, makes the mechanisms that bring this about so absurd, even ridiculous, that they seem almost a parody of Shakespeare’s notoriously miraculous resolutions. If Oliver Parker can’t resist one last bit of gratuitous visual whimsy, the director still captures the essence of Wilde’s great wit and good heart.

Global Crossing

The Sum of All Fears
Directed by Phil Alden Robinson

Adapted from the Tom Clancy bestseller, The Sum of All Fears is a geopolitical thriller wound as tightly (if not as precisely) as a Swiss watch. Directed by Phil Alden Robinson, this globe-trotting tale of espionage, sabotage and covert do-goodism takes several decades’ worth of nuclear peril and spins it into a convoluted but gripping standoff between America and Russia. Despite its factory-direct dialogue and phalanx of improbable villains, the film’s convincing build-up to the (wincingly realistic) bombing of an American target just might send audiences racing home to check the latest bulletin from CNN.

Set partly in the corridors of power in the White House and the Kremlin, Clancy’s scenario centers on the new president of Russia, Alexander Nimerov (Ciaran Hines). The American president (James Cromwell) and his advisors are apprehensive about Nimerov’s hard-line intentions in rebellious Chechnya, where, unbeknownst to both sides, an old Israeli warhead is being refitted by terrorists. Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck), who wrote a think-tank paper on the obscure politico, is brought in for a debriefing on Nimerov. Ryan’s expertise is tapped by a sagacious senior official (Morgan Freeman), who recruits the young analyst to inspect a Russian nuclear plant, where Jack discovers a nebulous conspiracy hatched by a billionaire neo-Nazi crackpot (Alan Bates).

Keeping track of who is doing what, and to what purpose, provides a diversion from the global conspiracy to pit the two superpowers against each other in a nuclear conflict. The script, coadapted by Paul Attanasio (Donnie Brasco), works in as many hot-button issues as possible, from war in the Middle East to stolen U.S. plutonium to the vulnerability of global digital communications, with references to biological warfare thrown in for more nerve-wracking topicality. Robinson, the director of the technology thriller Sneakers, has a savvy hand for deploying information and planting leads, and the far-flung plot advances plausibly by putting Jack in the right place at the right time for intelligence gathering.

Fans of the three previous Clancy films, however, will be disoriented to find that Jack—last seen as Harrison Ford’s mature CIA director in Clear and Present Danger—is now a young buck falling in love with his future wife, Dr. Cathy Muller (Bridget Moynahan). Afleck’s brash and inexperienced agent is meant to precede Alec Baldwin’s renegade Jack in the first (and best) Clancy movie, 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, and he follows the wise guidance of his CIA mentor one minute and impetuously bursts into red-level meetings the next. Among other disjunctures in the film’s tone are the switches from grim realism to James Bond-style insoucience, with the best wisecracking involving Jack’s lethally gonzo contact in the Ukraine (Leiv Schreiber).

At one point, the constrast between Jack’s derring-do and Cathy’s efforts in treating evacuated bombing victims gives unpleasant pause. But mostly, the transnational intrigues are tensely bolstered by Cromwell’s mediagenic president and his divisive cabinet, who debate and vaccilate convincingly as Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears becomes the here and now.

—Ann Morrow

Decline of a Salesman

Diamond Men
Directed by Dan Cohen

This is a film about a man who loves his job too well. Eddie Miller (Robert Forster) is a wholesale diamond salesman, and he has been crisscrossing the big towns and small cities of central Pennsylvania for 30 years. A quiet, conservative man, Eddie knows the territory and his customers intimately. Eddie has the salesman’s gift for relating to these small-town businessmen on a personal level, combined with the meticulous devotion to detail required when carrying around a million dollars in wholesale jewelry.

This lifetime of experience is rendered useless by a heart attack. Eddie instantly becomes an insurance risk too uncertain to trust with such valuable goods. He has expenses, however, and needs the good commissions diamond sales bring. This is why he’s willing to put up with the indignity of training his own replacement: It will buy him another six weeks on the road. Bobby (Donnie Wahlberg), the trainee, seems the direct opposite of Eddie: He’s loud and brash, with more confidence than brains. Walhlberg, like his brother Mark, has a puppy dog quality that makes him both likable and wearying, perfect for the character. This former snack-food salesman thinks he knows it all, having passed a company-sponsored course in diamond salesmanship.

Thus, Diamond Men enters familiar cinematic territory. The two men clash, but there is never much doubt that they will eventually come to terms with each other. Bobby, whose womanizing is another of his irritating qualities, even takes a personal interest in getting Eddie, an ascetic widower, laid. While this at first seems a bizarre detour, we come to realize that it really is a big part of what’s wrong with Eddie: His whole life is his work. Eddie’s eventual romance with Katie (Bess Armstrong in a gem of a performance) is appealing.

The film works as well as it does because the actors have a genuine rapport, and because of the verisimilitude of the script and setting. Writer-director Dan Cohen based Eddie on his own father, and this world of small jewelry stores dotting the bucolic Pennsylvania countryside seems real.

Forster is convincing as Eddie, and the film is his showcase. Forster really looks the part, too: In his sharply tailored black suits, he could be an undertaker or a gangster. He’s reserved enough to fade into the background, but you sense that he can take care of himself when necessary. As Eddie begins to recognize that his business life is ending, Forster captures the confusion and wonder of a man coming to terms with change.

Strong on atmosphere, Diamond Men is weak when it comes to plot. There is corporate intrigue. There is a mysterious woman named Tina (Jasmine Guy), who runs a whorehouse in Altoona. Bobby falls for a sleazy hooker with predictably bad results. None of this adds up to much, but neither does it really detract from this fine character study.

—S.S.


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